What ‘No’ on F-16 Fighter Jets Might Mean for Ukraine

WASHINGTON — For Ukraine, the United States and its NATO allies, the playbook has now become standardized.

First, Kyiv asks for an advanced weapons system. The Biden administration says no, and quietly suggests that Ukraine could get the same type of weapon from its European neighbors, in half the time.

But NATO countries in Europe, still smarting from President Donald J. Trump’s oft-spoken wish to break up the alliance, refuse to commit to sending anything to Ukraine that would provoke Russia unless the United States is right in there with them. So, after months of hemming and hawing, the Biden administration says yes, and the gates to more weapons open.

So it was with air defense systems, when President Biden decided in late December to send a Patriot battery to Ukraine, and Germany and the Netherlands then announced that they too would send Patriot launchers and missiles. So it was with armored fighting vehicles, with France and Germany opening up their larders once the Biden administration signaled in January that it would send Bradleys. So it was with tanks, with Germany agreeing to send Leopard 2 tanks once the Biden administration agreed to send the American M1A2 Abrams.

Now it is the fighter jets, the latest item on the Ukrainian acquisition wish list. Kyiv has asked for dozens of F-16s, the single-engine fighter jet developed in the 1970s by General Dynamics and the U.S. Air Force. Almost 50 years later, American Air Force pilots are still flying the F-16, as are pilots in a host of U.S. partner nations.

Ukraine wants them, both to provide air support for troops as they seek to reclaim cities and towns in the east and the south where Russian troops have dug in, and to protect their cities and towns from Moscow’s attack planes.

Following the usual script, the Biden administration is saying no — but officials hasten to say, privately, that no is probably temporary.

After Mr. Biden said “no” when a reporter asked on Monday if the United States would provide F-16 fighters to Ukraine, senior officials quickly followed up in conversations afterward. Several said Mr. Biden’s “no” did not preclude the administration from deciding later to provide F-16s or, more likely, working out an agreement that would allow another country to send its own American-made F-16s to Ukraine.

“We are constantly talking to the Ukrainians, and we are constantly talking to our allies and partners about capabilities that they need,” John F. Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.

In a post on his Telegram channel on Monday, Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said that “the work on obtaining F-16 fighters is ongoing,” adding that Ukraine had seen “positive signs from Poland, which is ready to transfer them in coordination with NATO.”

But American and European officials say it is more likely that such transfers would come from Denmark or the Netherlands. The Dutch cabinet would consider a request from Kyiv for F-16s with an “open mind,” NL Times quoted Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra as saying last month.

The Netherlands has around 40 F-16s, and is transitioning to the more advanced F-35 fighter (also made by Lockheed Martin), so sending some of its F-16s to Ukraine would make sense, American officials said.

The U.S. government must approve sales or transfers of F-16s from partner nations to third-party countries, which means that any NATO member that wants to send its American-made fighter jets to Ukraine must first get a green light from the Biden administration.

That permission, two officials said, could help reassure NATO countries that are concerned about being singled out by Russia for sending the advanced fighter planes to Ukraine.

“We have a pattern; if we say we will provide categories of equipment, then our allies will do so,” said Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Ukraine during the Obama administration. “They seem to be super afraid of Russia directing ire at any one NATO country.”

In the case of the Abrams tanks, just the announcement last week that the United States would send them was enough to unlock the German Leopard 2 tanks, even though the Pentagon says the Abrams probably will not arrive on the battlefield for months, if not years. Britain’s earlier pledge to send its Challenger tanks was not enough to bring the rest of Europe along, officials acknowledge.

At the moment, the Biden administration views advanced fighter aircraft as something a modern Ukrainian Air Force will undoubtedly get directly from the United States, but in the future. Pentagon officials say they want to prioritize weapons that can help Kyiv right now. The Biden administration is preparing a new weapons package for Ukraine, administration officials said this week. The package, at $2.2 billion, is expected to include longer-range rockets, but those would most likely not be delivered for several months, if not years.

Bigger and better weapons that are publicly promised but not delivered right away still serve a purpose, American officials said, of sending a message to Russia. A Ukrainian military that is fortified by fighter jets and tanks in perhaps a year would be able to mount counteroffensives to take back territory seized by Moscow.

Officials say the top priorities for Ukraine right now are air defense systems, artillery and then armored and mechanized systems.

But Ukraine, whose pilots fly Soviet-era jets, including MiG-29s, has been adamant that it wants Western fighters.

Because so many U.S. allies have F-16s, the supply chain for the advanced fighters is well supported around the world, which would make it easier for Ukraine to maintain them, said Michael Fantini, a retired major general who flew F-16s during the Iraq war. He called the fighter the “most maneuverable ever built, with the exception of the F-22” — another fighter jet.

He said the plane could make a “significant contribution” on the battlefields and in the skies above Ukraine.

Yurii Ihnat, the spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said in a briefing last week that it would take Ukrainian pilots a “couple of weeks” to learn how to fly the fighters but “about six months” to master how to fight with the aircraft.

President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Monday that his country had not ruled out sending fighter jets to Ukraine, but he laid out several conditions. Among them: that providing such equipment would not lead to an escalation of tensions or be used “to touch Russian soil,” Mr. Macron said.

American officials say that after a year of warning the Ukrainians not to fire Western weaponry into Russia, the Ukrainian military has earned their trust.

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